By Amy Wenk

Dunwoody Springs Charter Elementary School will no longer operate as a charter school next school year. School officials recently announced Dunwoody Springs will revert to being a traditional public school.

The school’s officials say they can keep the programs and procedures they developed as a charter school without renewing the charter contract, which expires at the end of the school year. The school became a charter in August 2005.

“The whole charter process has evolved over the past five years,” said school Principal Ivy Gainey. “Apparently the flexibility that required a charter five years ago doesn’t require a charter now.”

In Georgia, a charter is a performance contract between the school’s administration and the school board. It is usually re-evaluated every five years.

Once granted a charter, a school has the freedom to pursue individual goals. A charter school can operate without many of the regulations that usually apply to public schools.

Gainey said she submitted an application to renew the school’s charter to the Georgia Department of Education in October. Fulton County Schools had already approved it.

“When we went to the state, they said, ‘You really don’t need charter status to do the things you have listed here,’” Gainey said.

State officials told her that if the school renewed its charter, additional requirements would have to be met that “really didn’t fit our model,” Gainey said.

Those new rules — a result of a federal audit of Georgia in the 2007-2008 school year — require more defined performance objectives and increased responsibility on the local school to manage its personnel and finances, said Fulton County Schools Charter Liaison Laura Stowell.

“It would require more autonomy at the local school level,” Gainey said. “That wasn’t a focus for us.”

She said the Dunwoody Springs was not looking to make changes to its organizational structure or try unusual things with its budget. “I really want us to maintain our focus on the things that directly impact student achievement.”

Gainey said school officials, teachers and parent leaders were consulted, and the charter application was withdrawn. She shared the news in an April 1 letter to parents and staff.

“This was a conscious decision,” said Gainey, emphasizing the school did not lose its charter.

“What we have here is exactly what we want, and we don’t need to do anything additionally just for the sake of having a charter name,” she said. “We are very committed to the programs and the things we have in place.”

Dunwoody Springs can continue the programs, because Fulton County has adopted many of the strategies and programs its charter schools have developed and tested.

“That built-in flexibility is part of the reason why the charter status is no longer needed,” Gainey said.

While a charter school, Dunwoody Springs established as a partnership with Georgia State University. The elementary school each semester hosts student teachers and interns from the university.

“It’s a win-win,” Gainey said. “We are training great teachers using great teachers, but we are also having that extra support in the classroom.”

Allison Toller, spokeswoman for Fulton County Schools, said the partnership was the first of its kind in the state.

“It worked so well that now we have taken it systemwide,” Toller said. Schools like North Springs Charter High School have a similar relationship with Georgia State. “Kids across the county are benefiting from the experiences and the experimentation that Dunwoody Springs went through.”

Dunwoody Springs also modified its Talented and Gifted program as part of its charter. In most Fulton County schools, the TAG program is only for those students that qualify based on test scores.

But Dunwoody Springs employs a TAG teacher who teaches the teachers of all students.

“We train our teachers to teach using gifted strategies so that all students benefit from it,” Gainey said. “That model has been hugely successful at this school.”

The school also will retain its uniform policy, parent involvement activities and data assessments to monitor student progress.

“I think we as a school have done a lot of really terrific things,” said Beth Mazur, president of Dunwoody Springs’ Parent-Teacher Association. Her son Sam is a fifth-grader at the school. “I think the charter got us thinking about some of those things [like] mandatory PTA membership. But that can continue … It’s in place.”

There are at least 120 charter schools in Georgia, according to the 2008-2009 annual report on charter schools from the Georgia Department of Education. Fulton County has 12 charter schools, more than any other county in the state according to the report. Sandy Springs is home to seven of those 12.

Toller said Fulton County Schools is looking at becoming a systemwide charter like Decatur and Marietta city school systems. The state mandates school systems decide around 2013.

“Fulton County enjoys its charters, primarily because of what we see happening in schools like Dunwoody Springs,” Toller said. “If it is a good idea, man, we are stealing it. We’re taking that good idea from the charter, and we are using it with every school that is appropriate.”